Baptists Can Use Catechisms, Too

Several summers ago, I was serving as the youth minister in a little country church. Our small youth group had piled into a fifteen-passenger van and were on our way to church camp. I was driving the van while one of our adult volunteers, a middle-aged woman, was riding shotgun. During the drive, she shared with me her conversion testimony. She had been raised in a theologically liberal Lutheran congregation. She remembered being forced to memorize a catechism as a young child, but claimed she never heard the gospel until she was in her twenties. As she concluded her testimony, she exclaimed, “I sure am glad that Baptists don’t do catechisms!” I cringed.

Over the years, I have met many other Baptists who feel this way about catechisms. Around Southeastern Seminary, there is a great story about a former church history professor who was asked by a student how parents can help their kids to memorize basic doctrine while avoiding “the dangers” of catechism. I have also heard a few folks argue that it is legalistic to teach children to memorize doctrine before they understand the gospel (of course, these folks rarely make the same argument about children memorizing Scripture, even “legal” passages like the Ten Commandments). Some simply identify catechisms with pedobaptists; catechesis is the sort of thing that Presbyterians and Lutherans do. We Baptists stick with Bible Drill and Vacation Bible School.

You might be interested to know that there was a time when Baptists did, in fact, “do” catechisms. In fact, Baptists have written numerous influential catechisms over the years, including many Southern Baptists from bygone days. Though Baptists have often had an awkward relationship with other Protestants because of our fusion of both radical and reformational tendencies, the latter traditions bequeathed to the earliest Baptists an emphasis on catechesis. In fact, perhaps more consistently than at least some of our pedobaptist friends, earlier generations of Baptists embraced a dual commitment to both catechesis and conversion. Baptist children often learned basic doctrine and ethics via catechisms, though as they grew into their teenaged years they were also urged to personally trust in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, submit to believer’s baptism, and become a member of the church. Sometimes pastors catechized the church’s children in what was an early version of “youth group” (Richard Furman is one noteworthy example). More often, parents taught their children the catechism. It wasn’t until the latter half of the nineteenth century that catechesis began to wane among Baptists.

Thankfully, Baptists have begun to recover an emphasis on catechisms over the past generation or so. Many noteworthy Baptist catechisms have been compiled in edited volumes by authors such as Tom NettlesTimothy George, Jim Renihan, and Tom AscolFirst Baptist Church Tallassee, Alabama has published a catechism based upon the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. My friend Steve Weaver is working on a new edition of the Orthodox Catechism, a Baptist revision of the Heidelberg Catechism first published in 1680. John Piper published an updated version of the famous Baptist Catechism of 1693. Solid Ground Christian Books has reprinted Benjamin Beddome’s Scriptural Exposition of the Baptist Catechism, first published in 1752. Jim Scott Orrick has recorded an album that puts the 1693 catechism to music. Greg Nichols has edited a Baptist revision to the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1648). No doubt there are others of which I’m not aware. The texts of many Baptist catechisms can also be found on the internet at such websites (let Google be your guide).

If you want to know more about the importance of catechesis in general, check out Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way (Baker, 2010), written by Gary Parrett and J.I. Packer. Even if you aren’t convinced that using catechisms are a helpful way to teach your children the basics of the faith, consider purchasing this book, which is more about the importance of deliberately forming young people and new believers in the faith than it is an apologetic for using formal catechisms. If you want a more sustained Baptist apology for the use of catechisms, Tom Nettles has written two articles for Founders Journal: “An Encouragement to Use Catechisms” and “An Encouragement to Use Catechisms, Part 2,” both of which are available online.

(Note: This post is cross-published at Christian Thought & Tradition)


 Angry Racer Game

Baptist Theology: A Short Review

I recently read Stephen Holmes’s new book Baptist Theology (T&T Clark, 2012). Holmes, who teaches at University of St. Andrews in Scotland, is one of my favorite theologians writing today. Baptist Theology is part of T&T Clark’s “Doing Theology” series, which offers brief accounts of various ecclesiastical traditions for students or outside observers. I’ve been looking forward to reading this particular book for months, and it did not disappoint.

Holmes divides his book into an introduction and seven short chapters. As a general rule, he does a fine job of summarizing Baptist history and interacting with many of the most influential interpreters of the Baptist tradition (though Tom Nettles and Walter Shurden are curiously absent.) Holmes notes the wide diversity among Baptist theologians and the impossibility of advancing anything approaching a definitive summary of Baptist theology. All projects such as Baptist Theology are provisional, to some degree constructive, and necessarily nuanced and caveated (to invent a term) because of the wide array of Baptist beliefs and practices. Holmes writes from a perspective informed by evangelical convictions about Scripture and salvation, British Baptist sensibilities concerning ecclesiological matters and ecumenism, and a broadly Barthian read on the wider Reformed tradition.

I don’t agree with everything Holmes advocates—not surprising, since we’re both Baptists. I think he misunderstands nineteenth-century Landmarkism, ascribing to them a soteriological exclusionism to which they did not hold. I also disagree with his egalitarian views of church leadership, particularly his argument that Baptist polity should inevitably lead us to full inclusion of women in pastoral leadership. (I remain a convinced complementarian for exegetical and biblical-theological reasons.) I also articulate the meaning of baptism somewhat differently than Holmes. I’m less sanguine than Holmes concerning the British Baptist “recovery” of evangelical sacramentalism, which I see as being a mixed bag that varies from interpreter to interpreter. I also reject the open membership position that is common among churches affiliated with the Baptist Union of Great Britain.

Having registered some disagreements, let me say that I agree with Holmes far more often than I disagree with him. I very much resonate with his discussion of the Baptist vision of the church, especially his emphasis on a covenantal understanding of church membership (a common theme among British Baptists that I heartily affirm). I find his theological accounts of congregational freedom and liberty of conscience to be quite compelling. I especially appreciate his balanced approach to the tension between individualism and community in the Baptist tradition. It seems to me that the Baptist tradition, when at its healthiest, emphasizes the individual-within-community rather than a (too-common) democratic individualism or a (über-trendy) postmodern communitarianism. His discussion of Baptists and ordination is also very interesting; Baptists have never quite figured out how to approach ordination, though, in an arguably ironic twist, those of us in America appreciate the tax benefits that ordination brings.

I love Holmes’s discussion of mission and holiness in the Baptist tradition. I like his reading on the centrality of mission to Baptist identity and history, a point I also make in my own teaching and writing. His point that Baptists have had a far more significant impact on missiology than systematic theology is well-taken (though he mistakenly identifies the Dutch Reformed missiologist David Bosch as a Baptist). His discussion of the holiness of the church is also very helpful, particularly since it addresses a serious area of neglect or confusion in many contemporary Baptist churches. I especially resonate with his emphasis on the corporate nature of sanctification and the role that the church plays in conforming us to the image of Christ.

I think Baptist Theology is a helpful volume for Baptist pastors and other ministry leaders in North America. While the British provenance of the book will mean that Holmes (perhaps) misunderstands some aspects of Baptist life on this side of the pond, it also provides him with a location to (perhaps) offer some helpful perspectives that we Yanks don’t always consider. For seminary classes that emphasize Baptist identity, I think it provides an insightful middle position that should elicit some stimulating conversation among students who are used to reading similar volumes by SBC-affiliated conservatives or ex-SBC moderate Baptists. A fruitful assignment might include asking students to write a comparative review of Baptist Theology, Stan Norman’s The Baptist Way, and Bill Leonard’s The Challenge of Being Baptist.

The Conservative Resurgence: An Annotated Bibliography


Adrian Rogers (1931-2005)

Since the early 1980s, dozens of scholarly or semi-scholarly books, dissertations, articles, and essays have been written about the Conservative Resurgence (CR) in the Southern Baptist Convention. The CR in the SBC began with the Houston Convention in 1979 and lasted through the end of the century. I would argue that the best ending date for the CR is 2000, the year the Baptist Faith and Message was revised. Though the “national” CR ended over a decade ago, statewide versions of the CR continued in some areas throughout the first decade of the twenty-first century.

The CR goes by many different names, depending upon one’s interpretation. The period has also been called the “Inerrancy Controversy,” “The Fundamentalist Takeover,” “The Fundamentalist-Moderate Controversy,” or simply “The Controversy.” Each of these labels contains some truth, though I opt to call the period the Conservative Resurgence because I believe this label best captures the heart of the issue. Grassroots theological conservatives, displeased with the leftward drift of many denominational servants, used democratic means to effect a leadership change in the Southern Baptist Convention.

This list of resources is not intended to be exhaustive, but it does represent some key works for those interested in studying the CR in greater detail. For the sake of space, I have not included any dissertations, though plenty have been written. Since my personal theological sympathies are with the resurgent conservatives who gained control of SBC leadership during the CR, my bias is reflected in my comments about these sources.

Primary Sources

Walter Shurden and Randy Shepley, eds., Going for the Jugular: A Documentary History of the SBC Holy War (Mercer University Press, 1996). This is the best place to start if you want to read sources such as press releases, excerpts from key sermons, resolutions, etc. The editors are moderates, so the introduction reflects their perspective.

Paige Patterson, Anatomy of a Reformation, 2nd ed. (Seminary Hill Press, 2004). Patterson was one of the three key leaders among conservatives, along with Paul Pressler and Adrian Rogers. This pamphlet reflects Patterson’s personal thoughts on the CR, including the major issues at stake and the rationale for the conservative strategy.

Paul Pressler, A Hill on Which to Die: One Southern Baptist’s Journey (B&H, 1998). This book is Pressler’s autobiography. The latter half focuses on the CR. A personal anecdote: I was flirting with becoming a CBF-friendly moderate in college until I read this book. It literally changed the direction of my ministry.

Cecil Sherman, By My Own Reckoning (Smyth & Helwys, 2008). Sherman was perhaps the most important moderate leaders in the 1980s and 1990s, so the second half of his autobiography provides an interesting counterpoint to Pressler’s aforementioned memoir.

Grady Cothen, What Happened to the Southern Baptist Convention? A Memoir of the Controversy, 2nd ed. (Smyth & Helwys, 1993). Cothen was a vocal moderate leader and a former president of the SBC Sunday School Board. Another insightful memoir.

L. Russ Bush and Tom J. Nettles, Baptists and the Bible, 2nd ed. (B&H Academic, 1999). Bush and Nettles argue that most Baptists have historically affirmed biblical inerrancy, though the term “inerrancy” is of recent vintage. This book, which was first published by Moody Press in 1980, has the distinction of being a secondary study in historical theology that functions as a primary source for one studying the CR.

Walter Shurden, ed., The Struggle for the Soul of the SBC: Moderate Responses to the Fundamentalist Movement (Mercer University Press, 1994). In these essays, key moderate leaders discuss why they formed alternative ministries to compete with SBC denominational ministries in the aftermath of the CR.

In 1985 and 1988, the journal Theological Educator published special editions dedicated to “The Controversy in the Southern Baptist Convention” and “Polarities in the Southern Baptist Convention,” respectively. Articles were written by key figures on both sides of the controversy. Theological Educator is the former faculty journal of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

Conservative Secondary Sources

Jerry Sutton, The Baptist Reformation: The Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention (B&H Academic, 2000). This is probably the most widely-used history of the CR written from a conservative perspective. It is triumphalistic in tone and relies too much on interviews with key conservative leaders, but it’s still essential reading.

James Hefley, The Truth in Crisis, 6 volumes (Hannibal Books, 1986-1991). This series provides a journalistic account of the CR written from a conservative perspective. Though clearly biased and largely uncritical in nature, Hefley gets some of the “human stories” of the CR that are missed by most other studies of the era.

Jason G. Duesing and Thomas White, “Neanderthals Chasing Bigfoot? The State of the Gender Debate in the Southern Baptist Convention,” Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood 12, no. 2 (Fall 2007): 5-19. This article focuses upon the gender debate in the SBC, which is closely tied to the CR.

Nathan A. Finn, “Baptists and the Bible: The History of a History Book,” in Ministry By His Grace and For His Glory: Essays in Honor of Thomas J. Nettles, eds. Thomas K. Ascol and Nathan A. Finn (Founders Press, 2011), pp. 3-16. This essay focuses upon the reception and influence of the book Baptists and the Bible.

Gregory A. Wills, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1859-2009 (Oxford University Press, 2009). The changes at Southern Seminary were some of the most explosive events related to the CR. Wills covers this material in chapters 10-13.

David S. Dockery, ed., Southern Baptist Identity: An Evangelical Denomination Faces the Future (Crossway, 2009). Several of the essays in this book discuss the CR and its legacy for Southern Baptists. See especially the essays by David Dockery, Al Mohler, Stan Norman, Greg Wills, and Nathan Finn.

Adam Greenway and Chuck Lawless, eds., The Great Commission Resurgence: Fulfilling God’s Mandate in Our Time (B&H Academic, 2010). Another collection of essays that includes several chapters related to the CR. See especially the essays by Thom Rainer, Al Mohler, and Nathan Finn.

The Summer 2003 edition of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, the faculty journal of Southern Seminary, was dedicated to “Theology, Culture, and the SBC.” The articles interact with Barry Hankins’s book Uneasy in Babylon, which is discussed below. The Spring 2005 edition of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology was dedicated to “The Conservative Resurgence in the SBC.”

Moderate Secondary Sources

Walter Shurden, Not A Silent People: Controversies that Have Shaped Southern Baptists, 2nd ed. (Smyth & Helwys, 1995). Chapter 7 offers the best brief introduction to the CR written from a moderate perspective.

David Morgan, The New Crusades, the New Holy Land: Conflict in the Southern Baptist Convention, 1969-1991(University of Alabama Press, 1996). This is probably the best history of the CR written from a moderate perspective. Though I frequently disagree with Morgan’s interpretations, he does the best job of any author in describing conservative activism in the decade prior to 1979.

Nancy Ammerman, Baptist Battles: Social Change and Religion Conflict in the Southern Baptist Convention (Rutgers University Press, 1990). This is one of the most important books to come out of the controversy. Ammerman is a moderate sociologist who demonstrates the significant theological and cultural differences between conservatives and moderates.

Bill Leonard, God’s Last and Only Hope: The Fragmentation of the Southern Baptist Convention (Eerdmans, 1990). Another standard moderate history. Leonard does the best job of describing what SBC culture was like prior to the CR, though Ammerman also covers some of this ground.

Bruce Gourley, The Godmakers: A Legacy of the Southern Baptist Convention (Providence House, 1996). This is not really a purely historical work because Gourley critiques the theological and especially ethical motivations of the “fundamentalists” who took over the SBC. For Gourley, the CR was more about power politics than theological renovation.

Barry Hankins, Uneasy in Babylon: Southern Baptist Conservatives and American Culture (University of Alabama Press, 2003). In this important book, Hankins argues that SBC conservatives were at least as concerned with a socially conservative political agenda as they were biblical inerrancy. I’m sympathetic to Hankins’s thesis. The Summer 2003 edition of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology included several articles that interacted with Uneasy in Babylon, including a rejoinder by Hankins.

The October 1993 edition of the journal Baptist History and Heritage was dedicated to the CR. The contributors wrote from a mostly moderate perspective.

The Conservative Resurgence and Southeastern Seminary

Nathan A. Finn, “The Story of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1950-2000.” This short essay recounts the history of SEBTS during her first six decades, including the tumultuous years of the CR.

Thomas Bland, ed., Servant Songs: Reflections on the History and Mission of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1950-1988 (Smyth & Helwys, 1994). This collection of essays, written by moderate ex-SEBTS faculty members, provides a surprisingly candid account of what Southeastern was like prior to the conservative takeover of the trustee board in 1987.

Jason G. Duesing, “The Reclamation of Theological Integrity: L. Russ Bush III and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1989-1992,” Christian Higher Education 9.3 (July 2010): 185-206. This fine journal article describes how former SEBTS dean Russ Bush implemented conservative changes at SEBTS prior to Paige Patterson’s presidency.

The Fall 2012 edition of The Outlook includes several popularly written articles about the CR at Southeastern in particular and among North Carolina Baptists in general.


If you’d like to download a slightly different version of this bibliography in PDF, then see Nathan A. Finn, “The Conservative Resurgence: An Annotated Bibliography.”

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